Who's hurt the most when the lights go off?
October 25, 2019 2:22 PM   Subscribe

PG&E’s power shutoff in California shows the inequities of climate risks: But the highest tolls of this outage will be borne by the most vulnerable: People who depend on medical equipment at home, whose jobs will be closed, and who face food insecurity without refrigeration.

Those hardest hit by these power outages - the lowest income brackets in California - are already victims to crisis-level inequalities around housing (Bay Area, Fire Victims, California, America at large: 1, 2, 3, 4), childcare, and food insecurity - all before the power gets shut off. Having your job shuttered during an outage means wage loss for the lowest earners, and that's the best possible outcome: many may simply lose their job due to their inability to attend or perform it due to impacts of the power outages.

California has the nation’s highest poverty rate, when factoring in cost-of-living.

Millions in the US don't know where their next meal will come from, but in California that translates to 1 in every 8 people.

PG&E power shut-offs leave ill and disabled struggling: “And I’m one of the fortunate people where I’ve already thought about this stuff. There are some very vulnerable people out in the community who probably don’t have the financial means to be able to just purchase a generator.”

How PG&E's actions hit the medically vulnerable the hardest: “There’s kind of this myth that disasters affect everyone and they’re this great equalizer and that’s just absolutely not true,” said Samantha Montano, an assistant professor of emergency management and disaster science at the University of Nebraska Omaha. “We tend to see different groups of people who bear the brunt of those impacts and struggle to find the resources to address those impacts.”

In the case of the shutoffs, people with disabilities and lower income suffered the most, Montano said. PG&E has offered no recourse to these customers, refusing to reimburse them for generators, alternative accommodations or spoiled medications.

PG&E is predicting that the shutoffs coming this weekend could be the biggest and longest yet.

Bay Area Power Shutoff Survival Guide


California's Wildfires and the New Abnormal: There are three reasons why California has been besieged by flames. First, the climate is becoming warmer...A second reason is that more people live in combustible places...City and county governments, hungry for the tax revenue that comes from new developments, often wave through new buildings in areas that are fire-prone...A third reason for the more frequent and intense fires is that there is more fuel.

The many causes and grim tidings of the state’s latest energy crisis.

Power Shutoffs Can’t Save California From Wildfire Hell

How California Needs to Adapt to Survive Future Fires

And although it is not being widely reported on, turning the power off in these high wind events has achieved the desired affect of preventing fires from lines impacted by fall-ins from high winds.

Previous PG&E: 1, 2. Previous hunger.
posted by allkindsoftime (114 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Shutting down the power is the best worst solution in the short term. Probably the medium term, given the enormous area we are talking about. There should be work done or legislation passed to ensure it does the least harm but it definitely does less harm than the large fires. I know so many people permanently unrooted or long term financially affected by fires the past 20 years. Any one of them would have taken a power outage over losing their home and/ or livelihood and being left with nothing but a small charred Hazmat site they cant even sell to a disaster speculator for enough to cover a new lot one third the size.

Paradise was an important lower cost but nice option in the area and its just gone. Concow is not what it was and no one there had home owners insurance plus its hard to rebuild a grandfathered in structure. Clearlake is a low income area popular with disabled and fixed income folks and so many people lost everything in all those fires a few years ago. There is nowhere left to start over if you lose your cheap housing now.

A lot of middle class Santa Rosa-ians gave up and moved away. Same in San Diego and Ventura.

The power outages affect low income folks more but so do the fires. For the next few years or decades until changes get made, the state and PGE should remain cognizant of that.
posted by fshgrl at 2:33 PM on October 25, 2019 [12 favorites]

Nevada County is looking at their fourth shutdown in just over a month this weekend. Kids have missed six days of school so far, lots of businesses disrupted, no power means no work for a lot of people.

I chatted yesterday with a young woman about whether it makes sense for her to buy a $600 generator to keep her fridge and freezer full of food from spoiling. She can't afford the generator, but then she can't afford to keep losing groceries either.

BTW it's not clear if PG&E's shutoffs are even working to stop fires, or more specifically if they are being properly carried out. It's far too early to tell but the brand new Kincade fire may have been caused by PG&E. They'd shut down the relatively low power ubiquitous distribution lines, but not the few high power long distance transmission lines. And there's indications one of them may have started the fire, but it'll be weeks / months before we know for sure.
posted by Nelson at 2:49 PM on October 25, 2019 [6 favorites]

Well, it was nice living in a "1st World" nation while it lasted. With the amount of delayed or outright ignored maintenance that's piled up over decades, not just in CA, but across the country...I'm not sure it's even possible to catch up on all the needed work. At least, definitely not before many more people (mostly older and/or poorer) are forced into worse conditions, deeper poverty, or even death.

At this point, private utilities have been revealed for the massive corrupt joke they really are again and again. I don't really care if public utilities are more costly and inefficient, I'd like some serious government oversight please, and no "shareholders" to please.
posted by sharp pointy objects at 3:01 PM on October 25, 2019 [68 favorites]

Or they could just put their profits into maintenance of the equipment instead of their own pockets & then we wouldn't have to choose between ways of being killed by their incompetence. There's only two emergency rooms between Richmond & Berkeley and they're trying to close the Berkeley one and if our power gets shut off I really don't know what we are going to do. My husband uses oxygen 24 hours a day so I guess we'll have to go to a hotel. Good thing he has me and I have family to help me out! Last time they did this a guy in his situation died because they shut the power while he was sleeping.
posted by bleep at 3:02 PM on October 25, 2019 [34 favorites]

I have friends on email lists swapping info about generators, insulin storage, and ventilators/cpap machines. Food storage, as much of a nuisance as it is, isn't part of the serious worries.

Oh, and the PG&E help lines and website tend to crash when these announcements happen; they don't put any extra resources toward communication. The "check your address" link, specifically, gets overwhelmed. (My address is not affected; I'm in inner-city flat lands. Which is nice, because my husband's also on an oxygen machine.)

I'm waiting for the first blackout crime wave.

The problem with the shutoffs, from PG&E's perspective: if they happen more often than "very very rarely," many people will start looking for alternatives to 24-7 electricity. They're not going to deal with "we have electricity most of the time and run a generator on gas fuel for a few days a month" because that's more expensive than electricity. Instead, they'll start coordinating their food supplies to be mostly things that can survive a few days unrefrigerated, get a small solar panel that produces enough power for a couple of lights for a few hours (bathroom, kitchen), maybe get a small solar hot water heater, and so on.

And then they switch to "we'll just use 20% less electricity, all the time," because once they've gone to the hassle and expense of setting up the renewable-source items, they might as well use them. Add in a few communities with several people who figure out how to go "off the grid" entirely, a few cities that start dealing with their own power generation, and PG&E's revenue drops enough that they have even more problems getting out of debt and safely supplying power in the future.

They're setting themselves up for a death spiral. I just wish that didn't look like it was going to involve a lot of other deaths.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 3:07 PM on October 25, 2019 [24 favorites]

The hope is decentralized, more localized energy resources will obviate the need for transmission through drying forests. Decentralization is more than a dream, but it's going to take at least a decade. It's going to take a lot of coordination on the local and state level.

As a Californian, I don't know exactly where to start agitating for change. Ask my state senator and assembly member what the plans are for ...? The cities on the Central Coast are looking at PSPS planning, and at least on has held a PSPS drill. It feels very reactive right now. People talk about getting generators or battery backups, but that's looking at the individual level. We have to come together as a state to hold PG&E accountable, eliminate corruption in our regulatory system, elect leaders that are willing to figure out how best build a new electric grid, find ways to support our communities locally, and build a future for all people here.
posted by Mister Cheese at 3:28 PM on October 25, 2019 [7 favorites]

The fire started in The Geysers and I have no idea if they can shut that down but I suspect not? Its a geothermal facility for those not familiar with the area.

I'd say PG&E should be a state run utility but the State of California couldnt run a bar fight. They can't build a fucking train from one city to another and their DMV is the worst ever. Personally I believe this ineptitude is on purpose. So it might be worse. Maybe keep it private but with strict rules about reinvestment?
posted by fshgrl at 3:54 PM on October 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

The boomer generation (by which I mean subset of boomers of privilege and clout, who are, surprise surprise, predominantly white) has spent the last 3 decades looting the public infrastructure, starving the very public goods which they used to grow their massive wealth, and pulled the ladder up after them, and the bill is only just now coming due. In a minor stroke of horrible irony, the most affected in this case are.... the boomers not of privilege, who need the power running right now to stay alive.

But Gen X, the Millennials, and Gen Z will be paying for this. We'll be paying for the rest of our lives to set right what the previous generation who grew their wealth when public education was cheap, when you could make six figures with just a high school diploma, and now that California is looking less white than it used to, have decamped for other states, attracted by "even lower taxes" (out loud), and "fewer of those people" (whispered amongst themselves).

There's plenty of blame to go around, but even above and beyond the likes of PG&E executives is the Locust Generation.
posted by tclark at 3:58 PM on October 25, 2019 [46 favorites]

I am lucky that I'm in inner suburbia and not affected by the shutoff; I use a CPAP machine and one of my cats has refrigerated chemo meds. I am making plans for the time I might not be so lucky.

What this will lead to, as Eris Lord Freedom notes, is more and more people finding a way to go off grid. Solar panels (already very popular around here), generators, etc. PG&E will have less and less revenue, and will become the expensive and unreliable provider of last resort for those who can't go off grid.

I wonder if the state of California could put together a kind of Works Progress Administration to - among other things - fix our infrastructure? This would provide plenty of jobs for a wide range of people, and it is extremely necessary.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 4:03 PM on October 25, 2019 [9 favorites]

The problem with the shutoffs, from PG&E's perspective: if they happen more often than "very very rarely," many people will start looking for alternatives to 24-7 electricity.

I recall there being a small spate of articles about water companies panicking during the last drought because people were actually saving water so effectively, it was wrecking their profit projections. Utilities have it so sweet right now — they can tut-tut about conservation or risk reduction or other things that imply that it’s entirely consumers’ faults that our state is either on fire or drying out. And they can still rake in profits without accountability. Any way they look at it, it’s always the consumer’s fault.
posted by sobell at 4:20 PM on October 25, 2019 [28 favorites]

But socialism is bad because bread lines.
posted by Reyturner at 4:31 PM on October 25, 2019 [14 favorites]

Newsom going crazy on their asses. "They simply didn't do their jobs." "They will be a new entity when they emerge from bankruptcy" "We will get out of this mess." Hate him or love him I admit, this was all stuff I needed to hear from someone in a position to do something.
posted by bleep at 4:32 PM on October 25, 2019 [18 favorites]

water companies panicking during the last drought because people were actually saving water so effectively, it was wrecking their profit projections

Gas price hikes in California last until people in the LA area start carpooling, and then prices plummet to get them back into one-person-per-car commuting.

I would guess the PG&E strategy is something like, "oh, they're going to hold us accountable for the costs of those fires? We'll show them; start shutting off power when there's a fire risk. Yes, EVERY time there's a fire risk. Yes, that's every few weeks. Keep it up until the legislature backs off."

I don't think it's going to work out the way they want.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 4:33 PM on October 25, 2019 [20 favorites]

We already have 3 models for electrification that don’t involve for-profit private utility companies:
1. Big Federal Program (TVA et al.) Upside, you get lots of energy infrastructure built. Downside, it was mostly coal, but they’ve started to clean up. TVA doesn’t do retail electricity delivery, so you still need 2 or 3.
2. Municipal power systems. This can include generation, or buy from someone else. Memphis has an exclusive contract with TVA, so we don’t get net metering or clean energy options, but it doesn’t have to be this way. The city had their own power station but sold it to TVA in the 70’s, I think. There are a lot of these in California.
3. Rural electrical cooperatives. There are 900 of these in 47 states, including some in California. They’re private but they’re owned by their customers to provide electricity at cost. Some own their generation and some don’t.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:09 PM on October 25, 2019 [6 favorites]

4. US Army Corps of Engineers takes over
posted by b1tr0t at 6:16 PM on October 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

Along with everything else mentioned (not to mention how money meant for safety and upkeep was diverted to bonuses and dividends instead), it's infuriating how much of a clusterfuck this whole process has been. (Your area is on the list for shutoffs, oops, you're off the list, oops, you're back on the list again. Blackouts start tomorrow at 10 PM, nope they're starting at 2 PM, actually they're starting on Sunday, we'll get back to you about the time. Maybe). I'm lucky enough not to require refrigeration for anything essential to my survival or financial well-being (e.g. working/owning a nearby restaurant), but for those folks wondering about that medicine if the fridge...

So yeah, though it's been said many times, many ways, **** PG&E with a rusty chainsaw.
posted by gtrwolf at 6:42 PM on October 25, 2019 [5 favorites]

4. US Army Corps of Engineers takes over

The US Army Corps of Engineers has done some fine work in the past but currently they mostly seem to be in the business of temporarily moving sand around to protect rich people's investments on the Atlantic coast. It's about as close to the thought experiment of digging holes and then filling them in again as you're ever likely to see in the real world but with added rich people profit.

I'm not certain we want to encourage the equivalent out here in CA.

In the long run I don't see how the state doesn't take over the grid as a public good.
posted by Justinian at 6:57 PM on October 25, 2019 [6 favorites]

I remember the last time there was a bunch of power company fuckery going on in California. It led to Gray Davis being replaced with Der Governator.

And then a whole bunch of people got arrested, and an entire energy trading network got rolled up, not to mention one of the oldest accounting firms in the country

But I'm certain this situation is completely different.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:59 PM on October 25, 2019 [7 favorites]

4. US Army Corps of Engineers takes over

Dear sweet god, no. Just no.

Utilities became a hot investment vehicle 15 or 20 years ago. I invested quite a bit myself and they pay good dividends and hold their value. Widely regarded as solid investment vehiclea doing something for the public good while paying out etc etc. Then Enron, fires, Bonneville going bankrupt, 15 utilities in the UK in one year going bust etc etc. Turns out we were all jusy extracting value all along.

The real, fundamental, root problem is...... 401ks. And all the similar "retirement vehicles". All that sweet, sweet investment money being shoveled into stocks each month practically by law has made a joke out of the whole idea of investment in an actual business being primarilg dependant on the business. There is so much money circling so few profits they are having to make up ways to spend it all. If we all sold our stocks in the same year we'd be back in the Stone Age.

The economic tail has been wagging the dog for quite a while and may have accidentally whipped him off a big cliff.
posted by fshgrl at 8:04 PM on October 25, 2019 [16 favorites]

I don't really care if public utilities are more costly and inefficient

You can have my socialist publicly-owned hydro utility when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.
posted by klanawa at 8:21 PM on October 25, 2019 [9 favorites]

"Even the most controversial and hard-fought part of the law—which makes it easier for utility companies to absorb the cost of fire damages by borrowing money and charging customers to pay it back over many years, a provision critics deemed a bailout—does not apply right now. It covers fires that burned in 2017, and those that start in 2019, but not any blazing this year."
posted by clavdivs at 9:10 PM on October 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

Public utilities are neither more costly or inefficient. In almost all cases they deliver power more reliably and at lower cost. This is partially due to a different regulatory structure, but mostly in that they aren't out to make profits for investors. There are certainly some cases of poorly managed public utilities- LADWP union bosses getting secret bonuses. But I'd much rather have some union guys get a little extra on their paycheck than pg&E exec's getting huge bonuses for running it into the ground.

SF and San Jose are already offering to buy out pg&e in their respective cities. Let's just buy out the whole thing.
posted by CostcoCultist at 10:09 PM on October 25, 2019 [25 favorites]

The truly infuriating thing about this is that it is entirely self inflicted. We had (and still have, in some states!) the answer to how we can have reliable basic infrastructure even when it is owned by greedy capitalists. I'm not quite 40 years old and yet I was born during a time when such a system was still in place nationwide.

Unfortunately, we have been so hoodwinked by the wall street finance sharks that we seem to have not only demolished the regulatory state but have now forgotten that it is even possible on the state level. There is nothing stopping California from reimposing rate of return tariffs on the electric utilities, generators, and transmission operators.

When your rate of return is fixed, the only way to make your money grow faster is to invest in the damn business and spend money (and thus bill customers for) keeping the system in good order. The structure of the system actively encourages investment, as opposed to the neoconservative system we have now that actively encourages disinvestment.

I'm not saying it's the best system, but it's one we know worked right up until it was decided it was better to just hope for the best, and that could be reimposed much more quickly and easily than developing a whole new system from scratch.
posted by wierdo at 10:59 PM on October 25, 2019 [17 favorites]

There is already a California Public Utility Commission that already has to approve PG&E’s budget at the line-item level. And they have repeatedly approved or PG&E’s plans to keep rates low by not spending on maintenance.

The regulatory state is alive and well, what does it need to do differently to keep the lights on?
posted by b1tr0t at 12:51 AM on October 26, 2019 [4 favorites]

It occurs to me also that, given the benefit of hindsight, we might even take the opportunity afforded by hindsight to make the minor tweaks necessary to keep some of the disadvantages of the old systems, like the tendency towards an explosion in the ranks of middle management, that were used to justify tearing down the old system in the first place.

That's not to say that we shouldn't look toward the future for something even better, only that where human lives are at risk in an immediate sense and urgent change is required, it is worth pursuing interim steps to restore a reasonable baseline level of safety and stop the ongoing wastage that is literally borrowing from our own future to enrich a few in the present. This can be done much more quickly and on a state by state basis than a large overhaul in how we do the whole electricity thing without asking voters to approve vast public expenditures.

The catch, of course, being that strict public scrutiny of the utility board or whatever other oversight/regulatory agency is empowered to enforce the regulatory regime is absolutely necessary to keep the slow creep of graft an sinecures at bay, but when is that ever not the case?
posted by wierdo at 1:04 AM on October 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

California is asking PG&E to square the round circle that is the completely fucked up system that resulted from the fallout of the Enron fraud on the ongoing dismantling of the previous system. Said system does look superficially like the old one, but it is not, because to the extent it applies, it only applies to the retail distributor.

Maybe I missed something, but last I saw generation and transmission were left in their deregulated state when Enron imploded and the regulatory changes that were still pending were halted while leaving those that had already taken effect in place. Only minor modifications were made to allow private retail energy companies to pass through the wholesale cost of power to avert the immediate crisis, by my recollection.

In short, an almost intentionally broken mimic of the previous regulatory system is not actually the system it mimics.
posted by wierdo at 1:51 AM on October 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

Collectively, my comments may give the impression that I think PG&E itself isn't largely to blame in both the overall situation and in the immediate crisis. That is far from the case.

It is clear that they are not implementing their planned outages very well at all, much less the planning process itself. It seems likely they are intentionally spreading the misery far beyond what is necessary to achieve their stated goals. They have been free the entire time to do the right thing regarding maintenance and safety without being forced by anyone else.

Even regarding the overall environment they inhabit, PG&E bears blame. Their lobbyists play a large role in the regulatory decisions that get made today. Their lobbyists indeed advocated for the very deregulation that enabled Enron and others to fleece them, their investors, and everyone in California out of billions upon billions of dollars. Their lobbyists where shaping things in between.

They bear plenty of blame, but they are also the most visible problem, not the entire thing, and it shouldn't be forgotten, even in justified rage, if we want to see a solution in our lifetime.
posted by wierdo at 2:25 AM on October 26, 2019 [6 favorites]

CPUC ratemaking is currently based on Rate of Return or, more precisely, Return on Equity. PG&E exaggerates its projected expenses and requests an exorbitant ROE for shareholders, and CPUC calculates the rate increase to meet that request. Company profits are largely decoupled from the amount of energy they deliver to customers, so when millions of people are blacked out for 48 hours or more, it's not the shareholders who suffer. This regulatory regime is far from a cure for the current crisis.

In Proceeding A1812009, PG&E's "revenue requirement" included increases to pay for their "Community Wildfire Safety Program" and for the hike in their liability insurance. The latter had been reaped after the San Bruno explosion. the Butte Fire. the Nuns and Atlas Fires, and the Camp Fire were directly caused by PG&E's failures in maintenance.

The former is a doublespeak misnomer. As is its "Enhanced Vegetation Management", an attempt to reduce annual vegetation management expenses by cutting far more than necessary, disregarding exemptions for larger trees and limbs and for covered conductors which nearly eliminate the hazard of wires coming into contact with vegetation, wildlife, foreign objects, or one another. These should have been installed years ago as other utilities have done, but PG&E installed only 17 miles in 2018 and planned to install only 150 miles in 2019 out of more than 25000 miles of distribution lines in High Fire-Threat areas, preferring instead to de-limb or destroy mature shade trees that suppress flammable brush along roadsides that may be ignited by passing vehicles and keep weaker trees from falling into energized lines.

The largest piece of PG&E's so-called Safety Plan is the equally doublespeak "Public Safety Power Shutoff" where PG&E shuts down distribution circuits but not 230kV transmission lines, igniting fewer fires than two Octobers ago. If the goal is to prevent wildfire, they have mostly failed; if the goal is to lower the bar so far that people commend them for setting merely dozens of homes on fire, they have mostly failed at that too, certain apologists excepted.

So what is to be done?

In 2010, I was a customer of Butte Community Bank when the state Department of Financial Institutions determined that the bank was insolvent and unable to reliably serve its customers, seized its assets, and sold them to a responsible steward. And now in 2019, I am a reluctant customer of a monopoly which is not only insolvent but demonstrably unable and unwilling to reliably serve my community. Mechanisms exist to dispossess PG&E just as PG&E has dispossessed so many victims across its territory, and political will is growing. PG&E's obsolete infrastructure must be severed from their malcompetent management as a public safety imperative.

Going forward, covered conductor must become mandatory for above-ground installations in High Fire-Threat areas. Long-distance high-voltage lines through steep fire-prone terrain like the Caribou-Palermo line that started the Camp Fire and the Geysers #9 line that appears to have started the Kincade Fire must be decommissioned or buried -- and until that can happen, decisions to de-energize must be made by independent third parties.

PG&E is so bloated the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. They can't even run a public information campaign. URLs sent to targets of one blackout no longer work for the next or have obsolete information. Customers are left in the dark, figuratively, before being left in the dark literally. The Company fails to publicize its own press-release portal. On which is an image blaming balloons for more than 500 outages last year. With covered conductors, such outages would not occur, and these intentional outages would not occur either.

I am all too familiar with powerline-ignited fire. The remnants of my neighbors' homes imbue my cells and will remain within me till I die. I do not want to see the like again, particularly not in Sonoma where survivors still recovering from the 2017 fires laid groundwork for our recovery. Nor do I want to see further ten-figure disasters inflicted on us all. The perpetrators of all this destruction need to have their dangerous toys taken away and placed in more responsible hands.
posted by backwoods at 4:22 AM on October 26, 2019 [31 favorites]

The regulatory state is alive and well, what does it need to do differently to keep the lights on?

The California Public Utility Commission has proven itself corrupt and ineffective. Part of the problem is good ol' regulatory capture; it's hard for any PUC to be effective. But it's worse than that in California. Back in 2010 when unmaintained PG&E gas lines blew up a neighborhood, the PUC dithered and prevaricated for a year or two and then recommended a fine of $0. This after a bunch of criminal negligence came to light. Then it came out in 2014 the PUC was colluding with PG&E to find friendly judges to give a PG&E-favorable judgement on various court cases. Then-PUC president Michael Peevey is a particular villain in this story, there's some suggestion he took campaign donations from PG&E in exchange for going easy on them. I think there's still a criminal investigation slowly churning about his relationship with PG&E.

I'm a fan of California's liberalism and big government approach in general. But the state does a terrible job in some things and the CPUC is a great example of it. That's also why I'm a little leery of proposals to have the state take over PG&E. It'd be better than what we have now, but I don't really trust the state to run it well. Some sort of municipal / non-profit arrangement makes more sense to me, albeit with state funding.
posted by Nelson at 7:07 AM on October 26, 2019 [6 favorites]

I remember when blackouts were indications of the failure of socialism and indicated why they HAD to be privatized. Weird!
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:38 AM on October 26, 2019 [17 favorites]

Going forward, covered conductor must become mandatory for above-ground installations in High Fire-Threat areas.

Are you willing to pay for it?

Covered conductor costs about $500,000 per mile to install. Just to replace, say, 100 feet of distribution wires running down the street in front of your house is almost $10,000. Are you willing to pay $10,000 for fire prevention of your house?

If you only replace the wires in high fire-threat areas, it will cost all 16,000,000 PG&E customers about $1000 each. Are you in the cities willing to pay $1000 each for fire prevention for people living in the remote areas.
posted by JackFlash at 10:01 AM on October 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

> Are you in the cities willing to pay $1000 each for fire prevention for people living in the remote areas.

All costs incident to a given location should be borne *by* the location via site value taxes/fees.

Things seem less expensive when you can otherwise externalize the costs, but that’s not good economics.
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 11:10 AM on October 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

All costs incident to a given location should be borne *by* the location via site value taxes.

In general, I agree. Taxpayers should not be subsidizing ocean front beach houses or backwoods resort cabins. But what about rural electrification in the last century? Or rural broadband today?
posted by JackFlash at 11:16 AM on October 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

All I can say is that Mello-Roos are a beautiful thing.

The first dollars of necessary infrastructure should come out of site value.

(There’s a lot of site value out there...)
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 11:38 AM on October 26, 2019

Edison's presentation estimates $430K/mile to install covered conductor compared to $300K/mile for bare wire and $3M/mile for undergrounding. Making it the best option for mitigating outages by more than a factor of three. And as we are discussing here, outages are very costly.

Covered conductor additionally reduces vegetation management as much as sixfold for the utility and allows the community to keep its trees, lowering energy bills and raising property values.

This is not a close decision. Going forward, all installations in High Fire-Threat areas must be covered or buried. I would be glad to invest the billion dollars PG&E owes our local governments for damages in a hardened grid that will not just pay for itself but eliminate this recurring trauma upon fire survivors and offer improved quality of life to displaced persons wishing to return.

This does not mean every mile of bare wire needs to be torn out tomorrow. That would require an army of electrical workers, all of whom are busy inspecting bare-wire circuits for damage six times a month or installing a hundred thousand generators. But when those circuits are actually damaged by vegetation or poles are burned in a firestorm, they must be replaced by something robust.

I would also argue that the costs of hardening long-distance transmission lines should be borne not by the communities they pass through but the markets they ultimately serve. The Geysers #9 line was not serving Geyserville, whose distribution circuit had been shut down. It was serving customers spared from these blackouts who need to mitigate the impact of their consumption of Sonoma's geothermal or Butte's hydroelectric resources.
posted by backwoods at 12:30 PM on October 26, 2019 [7 favorites]

For my compatriots following this thread, PG&E has just posted expanded blackout notifications on the pgecurrents site linked above.

Zero-hour is scheduled at:

2 p.m.: Amador, Butte, Colusa, El Dorado, Glenn, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, San Joaquin, Sierra, Siskiyou, Shasta, Tehama and Yuba.

4 p.m.: Lake, Marin, Mendocino (south), Napa, Solano, Sonoma and Yolo.

5 p.m: Alameda, Contra Costa, Monterey, San Benito, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Stanislaus; Alpine, Calaveras, Mariposa and Tuolumne; Humboldt, Mendocino (north) and Trinity.

10 a.m. tomorrow: Kern.

Winds here are calm now and not forecast to pick up until around 11 tonight. Yet we get to enjoy additional hours without light or heat. Forecast is 43F tonight and 41F tomorrow night. Good luck, everybody.
posted by backwoods at 1:05 PM on October 26, 2019 [7 favorites]

Wait, you want PG&E to leave power on so that there is increased risk of fires?
posted by JackFlash at 1:24 PM on October 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

pg&e literally can't win at this point; people will bitch if they cut power to prevent fires or if they don't and a fire starts.

yes, the executives should be gibbeted and their assets seized (and the regulators who were supposed to be, y'know, regulating should be jailed), but that doesn't change the current situation and humanity (particularly americans) shows no interest in changing how we live, so welcome to the new normal
posted by entropicamericana at 2:23 PM on October 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

California utilities — not lawmakers — are calling the shots on power outages to prevent wildfires
The money wouldn’t have gone far to help Californians who needed to replace spoiled food, those who fled to hotels or shopkeepers forced to buy generators and fuel during the power shut-off by Pacific Gas & Electric earlier this month.

Still, Gov. Gavin Newsom urged PG&E to do something symbolic: Give a $100 rebate to each of its frustrated residential customers and $250 to every business with no electricity.

“Lives and commerce were interrupted,” Newsom wrote on Oct. 14 to William Johnson, the utility‘s CEO and president. “Too much hardship was caused.”

But last week, PG&E refused. And in doing so, what could have been a goodwill gesture became a symbol of defiance and futility: California’s investor-owned utilities may be criticized for their efforts at wildfire prevention, but they’re also calling the shots.
posted by homunculus at 2:49 PM on October 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

I would like the half-mile of covered conductor from here to the substation and the mile of 60kV line from there to the powerhouse to remain energized at times like this when the risk is minuscule. If it needs to go dark later when winds start to pick up, fine, but I would like that risk-spend efficiency calculation to be based on the total economic impact of the blackout and not just the utility's bottom line. Because PG&E is strictly liable for fires started by its equipment but not yet strictly liable for damages from its denials of service, these blackouts are being used to socialize the utility's losses.

I actually live here and fled for my life last November. I have taken tours with Fire Safe Councils and seen their presentations. I am familiar with how wildfires start and how they spread. The risk of a line fault or line down event times the probability of ignition times the probability of a fire getting out of control is not commensurate with the certain multi-billion-dollar impact of today's planned calamity.

PG&E starts hundreds of fires a year, of which a small percentage get out of control -- in conditions such as those forecast. An ignition tonight could be as destructive as the Butte Fire or even the Nuns Fire. Yet the October 9 blackout was more costly than either, and this weekend's blackout is likely to be more costly still. But because those costs are imposed upon others, the executives in the Emergency Operations Center do not take them -- or us -- into account.

Addressing this as the "new normal" is fatalism. When the rains come and this season of besiegement ends, we will rally to ensure it never comes again.
posted by backwoods at 2:56 PM on October 26, 2019 [9 favorites]

Here is a blog from atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass describing the situation facing Northern California this weekend. He has a NSF grant to specifically study the Diablo winds.

This is quite serious. You can expect hurricane force winds with gusts up to 80 miles per hour in places. Tree trimming isn't going to fix this. Winds that strong can topple wide areas of trees and carry broken branches hundreds of feet to land on wires.

These are the sorts of conditions that happen around the country in big storms and hurricanes. Thousands of people lose power for days at a time. The difference is that most of those don't occur in tinder dry forests with no rain. By turning off the power before the damage occurs, they can reduce the chance of destructive fires.

Yes, you are going to have to get used to it. No, it's not going to be easy or cheap to fix. These are very extreme circumstances, a combination of catastrophic winds and extreme dry weather conditions.
posted by JackFlash at 3:12 PM on October 26, 2019 [5 favorites]

Mandatory evacuation for most of Santa Rosa.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 6:55 AM on October 27, 2019

i dont see any meaningful organized retreat from living in the wui, so it will happen again. baseless optimism is no virtue
posted by entropicamericana at 8:17 AM on October 27, 2019

PG&E absolutely bears fault for this, but so does climate change (and of course the utility bears some responsibility for that, too, although so do all of us, to some extent). Climate change was responsible for roughly twice as many acres burning in the West between 1984 and 2015 than would have burned without it. By the middle of the century major wildfires could increase in frequency by 50%, and 77% by the end of the century if climate change is not addressed. The world needs to take action that goes far enough to avoid that future. In the meantime, the power is out a few blocks from me, and as I listen to the gusts of wind, I would not complain if it was out in my home. The utility hasn't handled it well, obviously, but I think it was a necessary step in the situation that we're in now.
posted by pinochiette at 8:32 AM on October 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

i dont see any meaningful organized retreat from living in the wui

how would this even happen? looking at the maps for California's fire hazard severity zones, it's just...the entire state? And those maps are from 2007. the cities are "urban - unzoned," which doesn't fill me with confidence.

and that's just california. everything east of the Mississippi is different kinds of fucked.
posted by schadenfrau at 10:24 AM on October 27, 2019

Eh, given that PG&E has the power off in Berkeley, I'm pretty sure they're taking the piss at this point, likely in an attempt to get people fed up enough to exempt them from liability. There is zero question they are spreading the pain much farther than necessary.
posted by wierdo at 4:24 PM on October 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

You seem very confident in your knowledge about power systems and fire threats.
posted by Nelson at 4:45 PM on October 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's been a terrible day for fire. The Diablo wind event that pre-empted this shutdown is happening. The Kincade fire up in Sonoma got way, way worse. The area in Vallejo around the Carquinez Bridge caught fire (the Sky Fire) this morning, closing I-80. It's about 50% contained.

In Grass Valley there was a scary fire, the Dorsey Fire. It seems mostly controlled at 15 acres but could have quickly gotten worse, an enormous part of the state is under evacuation orders. The local Facebook discussion on that one is ugly. The fire is in an area known as a homeless encampment, and we've had trouble with warming and cooking fires getting out of control in the area before. So immediately a bunch of people jump on that and make ugly comments. Meanwhile I'm just thinking "the homeless people camping there are at risk, possible victims." Leave the blame-assignment for after the damn emergency is over.

Meanwhile PG&E has warned us there may be another shutdown for Tuesday and Wednesday. There's seemingly no end to it.
posted by Nelson at 4:50 PM on October 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

Is it really a "third event" or will they just not turn on the power again in between and leave it off all week long?

Yesterday I was at an event where most of the folks there were having their power turned off while at the party. One family turns out to have a generator, so good for them. Others work at a school that's having the power turned off and were concerned about that. I felt privileged since my phone wasn't going off and I live in flatlands instead of the hills.

Here we've had outages after all, but not of the "planned" variety. The wind isn't as insane as it was in the night and morning, but I still saw three fire trucks when I went out for food and gas, albeit they weren't doing much. It smelled slightly smoky but not nearly as bad as it was last year (yet), despite the various rumors I saw online about the air quality being so bad we shouldn't go outside. Last I checked on the AQI it was still in the green.

A lot of people here are panicking online, especially anyone who had to drive on the freeways where there were fires, wondering if it's safe to leave the house, posting photos of trashed cars that trees landed on, etc. Who knows. The police non emergency phone line is down, so that's going well. I'm amazed that I haven't gotten MORE notifications from the college or the town under the circumstances, though the college says they'll notify everyone at 6.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:09 PM on October 27, 2019

An ignition tonight could be as destructive as the Butte Fire or even the Nuns Fire. Yet the October 9 blackout was more costly than either, and this weekend's blackout is likely to be more costly still.

Do you have a citation for that? Because its hard to believe a power outage could cost more than fighting the fires plus the property damage plus the losses to individuals and businesses. Of the 20 or ao people I know displaced from Malibu last year, not one has moved back yet. I'd say half never will. Mostly self employed locally too so hard decisions are coming. A lot of starting over for people in their 40s

If Santa Rosa burns, it'll be a whole new thing, fire in the west. Santa Rosa isn't a small town in the forest or a spread out rural place like Malibu where people know it burns. Its a good size city and its not in tje traditional fire urban interface. Right now the fire is only a mile or so from the 101 at Shiloh Rd north of Santa Rosa and burning south into Wikiup and Larkfield. About 5 miles north od the center of town.

Not to mention if if it gets into the redwoods they wont stop it before it hits the ocean. I don't think that'll happen but what a tragedy if it did.
posted by fshgrl at 12:20 AM on October 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

It's crazy that we even have to argue if fires are worse than blackouts (which yes, fires are extremely bad). We shouldn't have to choose.
posted by bleep at 8:44 AM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Stupid hurricanes. It's crazy that we have to argue if drowning is worse than evacuations. We shouldn't have to choose.
posted by JackFlash at 8:52 AM on October 28, 2019

We shouldn't have to choose between fires and blackouts because pg&e shoulda done their fuckin maintenance. Acting like this shit was inevitable is just... No.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 8:58 AM on October 28, 2019 [9 favorites]

The issue is not maintenance. There is a catastrophic weather storm of hurricane proportions with wind gust over 85 miles per hour. Winds of that magnitude are going to destroy infrastructure.
posted by JackFlash at 9:09 AM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Even if this was a once in a lifetime, never-before-seen occurrence, if the system had the investment & maintenance it was supposed to get then they'd be in some position to better protect the people they serve. All I hear about nonstop in Silicon Valley is that it's so expensive to live here because it's survival of the fittest & only the best & brightest get to live here because they get the big bucks because of how smart they are, ok well if we are all so smart why is everything burning down around us? Nobody in charge of this mess have done anything to deserve getting a pass.
posted by bleep at 9:21 AM on October 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

And yet, in other places where high winds and dry weather happen simultaneously, these choices don't have to be made, certainly not on such a large scale. California is not the only place that red flag alerts happen.
posted by wierdo at 9:21 AM on October 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

And also there are no evacuations for blackouts, if you need electricity to live they will just leave you in your house to die.
posted by bleep at 9:22 AM on October 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

MAYBE if they treated the blackouts with care & concern & people weren't just left to die in their homes I'd be ok with giving the benefit of the doubt but all they have is reckless disregard for human life. Look at all the other fires they've set. This is the boy who cried wolf except the boy has been taunting the wolf and luring it into town.
posted by bleep at 9:28 AM on October 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

And yet, in other places where high winds and dry weather happen simultaneously, these choices don't have to be made, certainly not on such a large scale.

Can you name those other places similar to California? California has millions of people living in heavily forested areas that are tinder dry from decade long drought, with lots of fuel and hurricane force winds. One spark, as we have seen, can cause dozens of lost lives and billions of dollars in damage. Are you willing to take that risk?
posted by JackFlash at 11:26 AM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Spain? Chile? Portugal? There must be vast swatches of China and Russia like this.

But let's go closer, San Diego. They have similar conditions to NorCal. They do blackouts too. But they do them a lot better.

The reality is of course some mix of things. Yes, these winds and fire conditions really are terrible. Yes, PG&E has a record of criminal negligence of its infrastructure, one that's killed a lot of people in the last decade with both gas and electric problems. Yes, the CPUC is not an effective regulator. Yes, no one wants to pay to properly insulate or bury power lines the way you need to do if high winds are a regular problem. The sum total is shitty, though, and shitty in a way that's embarrassing for one of America's most productive economic areas. A productivity that's at risk if 2 million people are going to lose power for ~10 days a year for the next ten years.
posted by Nelson at 11:42 AM on October 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

Spain? Chile? Portugal? There must be vast swatches of China and Russia like this. But let's go closer, San Diego. They have similar conditions to NorCal.

No, they do not. Spain, Chile, Portugal. No, they do not have millions of people living in big, mature forests. SoCal, no, most of the lower elevations where people live are chaparral, not tall tree forests. And Santa Ana winds, although they have similar causes, are not comparable in magnitude. The Diablo Winds are caused by winds rushing down from the high sierras. The Diablo winds are more than twice as strong as the Santa Anas. You find these sorts of unique conditions in very few places in the world due to unique geographic and atmospheric phenomena.

And yet SoCal also has had its share of catastrophic fires caused by an electrical failures. Just two years ago the Thomas Fire in Malibu and Ventura counties destroyed over 1000 homes. Southern California Edison failed to turn off power pre-emptively before that fire in the presence of Santa Ana winds. So count that as a blackout failure.
posted by JackFlash at 12:41 PM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

"the suburban way of life is not negotiatiable" -california, i guess
posted by entropicamericana at 1:19 PM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Man it's almost as if the entire settlement of the west was done in an unsustainable way.
posted by PMdixon at 1:39 PM on October 28, 2019 [6 favorites]

Living there is not unsustainable but fire is a risk. You cant have all the things you want like electricity and personal cars and fireworks and glass bottles and camp fires and humans in general and not have fires in CA. Or Spain or Greece, all of which regularly have huge fires. Dry hot things are going to burn when its windy, its just gonna happen.

Every time there is a fire people spend all this time apportioning blame and pretending that if we just changed one thing it wouldnt have happened. Fuel is going to burn in the Oct winds, we cant stop it. The winds are predictable and the same areas burn. Paradise burning down was pretty much inevitable. Berkeley will likely burn again too some day. It was built in a terrible place. We'd be better off accepting that. Fires are like floods not tornadoes, we can predict them.

And dont say cut down all the trees! No trees on the 405 by Getty or in Malibu and those areas burn every few years.
posted by fshgrl at 2:30 PM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

We'd be better off accepting that.

I agree.

Fires are like floods not tornadoes, we can predict them.

Yes - and one example of the things we do with those predictions wrt floods is refuse building permits in certain areas, and another is a flood-specific insurance market with much higher rates to insure a dwelling than against other property losses.
posted by PMdixon at 3:20 PM on October 28, 2019

They did that for decades in SoCal after the big fires in the 60s. Then everyone just... forgot. The Witch Fire burnt all new homes built in known fire areas after developers took over the county planning board.
posted by fshgrl at 3:39 PM on October 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

after developers took over the county planning board.

Welp that'll do it. For large varieties of 'it' that involve saving costs by pushing externalities away in both space and time.
posted by PMdixon at 4:39 PM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

This string of outages is turning in to a bigger crisis. The power's still out 48 hours later in Grass Valley. If they get it on at all it'll be ~12 hours before the next power outage. Meanwhile it's gotten cold there, low of 40 tonight, and a lot of folks are without heat.

Meanwhile PG&E may have fucked up even further. In addition to the massive Kincade Fire possibly being caused by lines PG&E did not de-energize, now Utility says power lines may have started 2 California fires in Lafayette, in the Bay Area. Again, these are lines PG&E chose not to turn off. Bonus detail:
Separately, the company told regulators that it had failed to notify 23,000 customers, including 500 with medical conditions, before shutting off their power earlier this month during windy weather.
I understand the smug satisfaction of some folks posting here about how this is inevitable or some sort of punishment for global warming / overdevelopment / living in wooded areas / ... But please remember there are a lot of people in California suffering a whole lot right now, and the lack of solutions from the company or governments is enormously dispiriting. Also mind the framing from the original post about the particularly harmful impact of these crises on vulnerable folks, people without financial means, people with medical issues. The state is on fire and people don't even have lights, heat, or communications. It's bad.
posted by Nelson at 5:44 PM on October 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

You cant have all the things you want like electricity and personal cars and fireworks and glass bottles ...

Glass bottles had not occurred to me as a fire risk even though light shining in a window and through a large spherical vase with a camelia floating in it once set my couch on fire.
posted by jamjam at 5:59 PM on October 28, 2019 [5 favorites]

The power's still out 48 hours later in Grass Valley.

In addition to the massive Kincade Fire possibly being caused by lines PG&E did not de-energize, now Utility says power lines may have started 2 California fires in Lafayette, in the Bay Area.

See, this is what I don't get, complaining about power outages while simultaneously complaining about not enough power outages.

PG&E can't do both simultaneously. They can only make their best guesses based on the weather information they have. Some of their guesses might be wrong because they don't have perfect information.
posted by JackFlash at 6:12 PM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'd be more sympathetic if PG&E didn't have a history of criminal negligence. There's no sense that they do anything competently, that they are making smart decisions. Instead there's lots of evidence, documented in numerous court cases, of PG&E cutting corners and lying to boost profits.
posted by Nelson at 8:20 PM on October 28, 2019 [8 favorites]

Lots id discussion of this in Santa Rosa. General feeling is power needed to be off in some areas but they could set it up to be more nimble so they arent shutting down massive swaths of the powet in town while all the risk is out of town. I think thats a very reasonable point. Lots of talk of going solar too, which is interesting.
posted by fshgrl at 8:20 PM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

There's a whole lot of discussion about microgrid stuff right now. My little homeowner's association (14 houses) was speculating about whether we could share one big generator between us. Lots of folks looking to solar. Old school solar installations are also not working during these outages, because they are wired directly to the grid. But new battery-backed installations like those with Tesla Powerwall can operate even during a grid shutdown, they just go off-grid and run independently.

Now imagine a bunch of solar-enabled houses that are backed with a big generator providing power. To, say, 100 houses at a time, with secondary long distance transmission lines between 100 house microgrids. Such a network would be much more resilient to failures. It's an interesting idea. Is there anywhere in the world that really works that way? My understanding is most places are either fully centralized (ie, California) or fully decentralized (Afghanistan, with every home having its own generator). I feel like I've read some microgrid discussion in Kenya and other parts of Africa but I don't have references at my fingertips.
posted by Nelson at 8:30 PM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Lots id discussion of this in Santa Rosa. General feeling is power needed to be off in some areas but they could set it up to be more nimble so they arent shutting down massive swaths of the powet in town while all the risk is out of town.

That's possible, but on the other hand power to Santa Rosa comes from hundreds of miles away in some cases. It could be that some of the long distance transmission lines serving Santa Rosa are shut down, limiting the amount of power available for the city. The cause of outages isn't always local. But I don't know the details. Hopefully PG&E could keep people better informed of their strategy.
posted by JackFlash at 8:40 PM on October 28, 2019

The Butte Fire was responsible for $450M in property damage, $90M in fire suppression costs, and on the order of $1 billion total harm.

Figures for the Nuns fire are generally combined with other simultaneous North Bay fires, but the source with the largest estimate for the entire firestorm, $14.5B including $11B of (re)insurance losses and $1.5B of suppression and cleanup costs more recently estimated Nuns alone at $1B in (re)insurance losses. Extrapolating would give $1.3B for Nuns, but it could be $1.5B.

The above-the-fold link gives an estimate of $1.8 billion for a 24-hour outage affecting 600,000 customers. The Oct 9-11 outage was larger (~750K) and longer (61 hours here) -- cost estimates have ranged up to $2.5 or $2.6 billion.

The current outage is larger still (~950K customers), and while some of us have a few hours back on the grid tonight, others remain without power -- many also without heat. The societal impact of such harm imposed on literally millions of people can exceed even catastrophic wildfires destroying hundreds of homes.

California is not in a drought. Not this week, and not two years ago, when PG&E last set Sonoma on fire. The 2016-17 season started with the wettest October since 1962 and ended up setting records across northern California. The 2017-18 season saw less than half that much rain, which combined with the hottest California summer on record led to unprecedented evaporative demand when PG&E decided to continue operating the faulty Caribou-Palermo line through 50 mph gusts because "the forecasted conditions didn’t meet the criteria to initiate a [blackout]."

The 2018-19 rainy season here in Butte County started later than any since 1961 but carried on through late May with well above normal rainfall. As of June 8, we had received more than 9" in the last 24 days and more than 90" for the season, so fuels were still saturated when PG&E blacked out Magalia without warning. We then got two heavy storms in September before PG&E started repeatedly blacking us out again despite normal moisture conditions in the Cascade and Northern Sierra.

Winds around here have been calm to moderate, not like the roaring gales in eastern Sonoma. Conditions in other areas may well justify de-energizing lines, particularly 115/230kV lines, but failures of PG&E equipment in the Bay Area do not justify the breadth of these blackouts.

Godspeed to the hardy souls in the Camp Fire scar and elsewhere enduring a third night in the dark, to the millions being thrust into the dark again, to Sonoma survivors once again chased from their homes, and to the crews on the firelines earnestly striving to minimize the ravages of fire.
posted by backwoods at 3:54 AM on October 29, 2019 [11 favorites]

Thanks for the microgrids info, Nelson. I’d be interested in links to more details, too.

Do microgrids have to be ok’d by city bylaw? I don’t have an HOA in my neighborhood so I suppose I could maybe get one going if I got out & talked to more neighbors. Who does the maintenance? etc, is what I’m wondering.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 7:11 AM on October 29, 2019

I don't have any info on microgrids, sorry. If someone on MeFi is an expert it'd make an excellent front page post.

I did just read a great article on why you can't make phone calls during a long power outage. Long story short; all modern phone systems require decentralized power to operate. Cell towers, Comcast nodes, AT&T nodes, they all need electricity. And since deregulation last decade there's no law that compels them to have meaningful backup power. The cell networks do try, but hundreds of the cells apparently still have no backup battery or generator. And even if they do the charge / fuel eventually runs out.

I'm still adjusting to the idea that AT&T POTS service fails in a power outage; it used to not. The lack of phone service is a problem in Grass Valley right now; no one can get a phone call warning them a fire is coming. We do still have cell service (last I checked) so folks are trying to stay informed via text message or mobile Internet access, but it's not great. And if you're home and have a medical emergency you're relying on that cell phone now to call for help. If you can keep it charged.
posted by Nelson at 8:32 AM on October 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

How PG&E’s Aging Equipment Puts California at Risk. (To circumvent paywall, try clicking through from this tweet. Key image is at Flowing Data.)

A detailed investigation in to exactly what parts of PG&E's infrastructure are so old and badly maintained. Particular emphasis on the Caribou-Palermo line which runs up the Feather River and was responsible for the Camp Fire that wiped out Paradise. That line is permanently turned off now but there are many other lines with similar combinations of maintenance problems and severe fire danger.
posted by Nelson at 9:43 AM on October 29, 2019 [4 favorites]

Wow, Nelson. I didn’t realize communications were that vulnerable. I thought at least landlines would keep working. What a multiplier of catastrophic system failures. Thanks for these & future links.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 9:50 AM on October 29, 2019

I would be very curious to see a timeline of combined public/private infrastructure investments relative to the timing of various policy malpractices, eg prop 13.
posted by PMdixon at 9:53 AM on October 29, 2019

Here's why PG&E doesn't put more power lines underground
As PG&E takes the next step of turning off power to 850,000 customers in California, many residents are wondering: Why hasn't PG&E moved its power lines underground?

Doing so would stop lines from sparking wildfires, the cause of multiple destructive fires in recent years. But there are a number of reasons PG&E hasn't done much undergrounding — and most have to do with money.

It's a process PG&E has previously described as prohibitively (or nearly prohibitively) expensive.

As a 2017 San Francisco Chronicle story notes, it costs about $1.16 million per mile to install underground distribution lines. In cities, that number is much higher; work in San Jose cost $4.6 million per mile. Overhead lines cost about $448,800 per mile in comparison.

Most of the higher costs are associated with digging trenches for the lines. There is also the cost of repaving roads and other environmental factors, such as flooding or earthquakes.

"The cost of undergrounding a distribution line can vary depending on several variables, such as road width (work access), nearby sidewalks (to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act), density of nearby residences and businesses, surrounding vegetation, the number of power lines involved, other existing structures underground and other environmental issues," PG&E writes on its site.

One place that will be getting underground lines is the town of Paradise, destroyed in the 2018 Camp Fire. The process will take five years, according to PG&E.


Despite the astronomical price tag, critics say money shouldn't matter when safety and lives are on the line. There's also a lot of bad blood built up between the utility company and Californians: In the aftermath of the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion that killed eight, news broke that PG&E diverted over $100 million in safety money for other purposes, including bonuses for executives.

In August, a judge denied PG&E's request to distribute $16 million in bonuses to 12 top executives. PG&E argued the bonuses would help incentivize executives to meet safety goals in the wake of multiple wildfires.

"There is simply no justification for diverting additional ... funds to incentive them to do what they should already be doing," Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali wrote at the time.
posted by homunculus at 10:02 AM on October 29, 2019 [4 favorites]

@SydneyAzari: The Climate Emergency highlights the class divide.
posted by homunculus at 10:36 AM on October 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

>"the suburban way of life is not negotiatiable" -california, i guess

Just now I read that as "the subterranean way of life is not negotiable" which, who knows, might be a glimpse of the future.
posted by homunculus at 3:00 PM on October 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

Landlines are very much an "it depends" thing. If you still have a direct connection to the central office, which still has enough battery to last a day or more and redundant generators, you'll continue to have landline service. If you are served from a remote terminal of some sort, which you almost certainly are if you can't literally see the CO, you are at the whim of its (nominally) four hours of battery backup.

Basically, if you have or have ever had DSL faster than 6000/640, you're fucked in a long power outage, if at&t is your provider, anyway. If you have fiber, there is a good chance that your service will work if you have backup power for your ONT/"modem" since most at&t fiber deployments don't use active field electronics, but that is nowhere near as nice as the old way, where your phone just worked, so long as the wires were intact and the central office still existed.

Just one more way in which cheap-ass boards of directors have made our infrastructure far less resilient than it once was, despite the many improvements in resiliency that more modern technology has enabled. A net loss is still a net loss.
posted by wierdo at 5:15 PM on October 29, 2019 [4 favorites]

Not sure how many people are still checking in, and I wish I saw this earlier. But this is a MASSIVE issue for disabled and chronically ill people - who are often ALSO poor. Disabled Twitter is fuming with rage over this and the entirely
shitty attitude that PG&E has about it.

"My lungs are shot" - Santa Rosa man on oxygen dies after PG&E shut-off

"Pacific Gas & Electric says it failed to notify 23,000 customers, including 500 with medical conditions, before shutting off their power to prevent wildfires earlier this month."

To my understanding, those 500 are ones who are on their medical plan for lower income households. That does NOT include the potential hundreds, if not thousands, that rely on other power medical equipment or refrigerated medications, air conditioning, access to food, and access to elevators that aren't part of the medical program.

PG&E are being entirely dismissive and saying everyone should have a plan - there are limited to NO resources for disabled and low income people to access anything to help. There was NOT enough time for these households to plan, nor the resources available for alternative places to stay or sources of power. Homes are left for DAYS without power and no notice as to when power will be restored. Disabled and low income people are currently suffering. One has already died.

And yes, this is something that could have been managed better in previous decades but upgrading infrastructure. Hell, they have lists of low-income disabled customers. They should be doing MUCH more to provide alternatives or safe places AND contacting customers and giving out better, clear, information. But they literally don't care. They aren't even doing the bare minimum of properly notifying people.

Alice Wong is a great disability activist who has been sharing a lot of information about the PG&E problem, including various links for supportive programs.
posted by Crystalinne at 7:19 PM on October 29, 2019 [9 favorites]

PG&E are being entirely dismissive and saying everyone should have a plan - there are limited to NO resources for disabled and low income people to access anything to help.

ABSOLUTELY. The local disability-resource centers in each county are stepping up and offering batteries, hotel rooms, and other things necessary to keep vulnerable people alive, and I will say (as a VERY active Facebook user in Sonoma County) I have seen exactly one post with those centers' contact info; it did come from the county and I did share it as widely as I was able (which is not much), but I can't say it's common knowledge.

I'm fairly well off and the expectation that I have an evacuation plan and all the resources needed in case of disaster (full gas tank, pantry full of shelf-stable food, emergency kit, extra supplies for the pets, friends with whom I [and the cats] can stay) is burdensome to me. I've been watching our local groups have a lot of people struggling with where to go and where their dependents, human or not, can go. It's expensive to have to evacuate all the time.
posted by lazuli at 8:39 PM on October 29, 2019 [4 favorites]

"My lungs are shot" - Santa Rosa man on oxygen dies after PG&E shut-off

This is a very sad story but these were not poor people. They simply failed to have a plan. They lived in a Santa Rosa suburb with million dollar homes. The man's favorite pass time was playing golf. They had an electrical backup generator for the man's oxygen machine but they apparently hadn't planned ahead on how to use it. They apparently didn't ask neighbors for help with the generator. They drove to the hospital where they got oxygen but then left and drove to different facility.

This bothers me because they had a week's notice that the shutdown would be occurring but did not have a plan for what to do when it occurred.

If people fail to have a plan for a two day power outage with a week's notice, what are they going to do when the Big One hits with no warning at all and power is out for days or weeks? Who are they going to blame for that one?

This indicates that there needs to be more community outreach to vulnerable people to make sure they have a plan. This should be something that comes out of the medical community to make sure their patients have home support. But where is the money for that supposed to come from?
posted by JackFlash at 8:40 PM on October 29, 2019

Truthfully, there's probably money for outreach. I'm not sure there's money to help people actually get the resources, skills, and plans they need in case of emergency. It's all very well to say, "They had money," but it's harder to figure out the actual barriers in place to people getting the help and support they need.
posted by lazuli at 8:54 PM on October 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

In this case, it wouldn't have taken much. They had the means. If they had just stocked up on oxygen bottles in advance to hold them for a couple of days they would have been okay. If they had just once gone through the drill of starting up their portable electric generator and plugging in their oxygen concentrator they would have been okay.

You would think that if you are on oxygen, before you leave the hospital that hospital personnel would go through a checklist to make sure they had a backup plan for oxygen. But our medical system just isn't set up for that kind of follow through.
posted by JackFlash at 9:04 PM on October 29, 2019

I'm going to firmly reject any "Why didn't they just..." pseudo-analysis.

Why didn't we just ensure that people wouldn't suffer? Regardless of their means, their geography, their preparedness. We should not be rationalizing people dying, or suffering, to justify capitalist greed.
posted by lazuli at 9:10 PM on October 29, 2019 [7 favorites]

I feel like the Trolley Problem has some relevance here.
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:06 AM on October 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Everyone wants to fix PG&E. And everyone — taxpayers — will be paying for it. An editorial piece in the SF Chronicle today. The part that stuck out to me:
PG&E has estimated the cost of reinforcing its electric grid at between $1.7 billion and $2.3 billion and could take several years to complete the project
$2B? Is that all? That's not a lot of money; California's annual budget is $200B. It's also about the cost of just one of the bigger blackouts, the two day one three weeks ago was estimated to cost roughly $2B in lost productivity, damages, etc.

But while $2B is imaginable for the state, it's probably unimaginable for a private company like PG&E. Especially now since the company is very, very insolvent if you add up the liabilities from the fires their maintenance led to in past years. It's another reason the company should not survive this latest crisis their mismanagement has caused.

The "several years" part is a bigger problem, but maybe it could be done faster with more money. Or maybe 80% of the customers can be addressed in the first year. Surely there's some way to manage this.

While I'm here, more of the local news view of things from Grass Valley. New round of power shutoffs force Nevada City businesses to adjust. Lots of expenses and lost business; I imagine several on-the-edge businesses may not survive this last week.
posted by Nelson at 9:38 AM on October 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

> PG&E absolutely bears fault for this, but so does climate change (and of course the utility bears some responsibility for that, too, although so do all of us, to some extent).

To some extent, but less than others: The big polluters’ masterstroke was to blame the climate crisis on you and me: Fossil fuel giants have known the harm they do for decades. But they created a system that absolves them of responsibility
posted by homunculus at 12:02 PM on October 30, 2019 [5 favorites]

The above-the-fold link gives an estimate of $1.8 billion for a 24-hour outage affecting 600,000 customers.

This number has been bandied about here several times. It comes from a blogger who does not disclose the formulas or assumptions that went into his estimate.

But you can do a sanity check for yourself. $1.8 billion divided by 600,000 customers is $3000 per day. Does it sound reasonable that each customer without power is costing $3000 a day?

Or you can put it in economic output terms. California GDP is a little less than $10 billion per day. Is it plausible that turning off power to 600,000 customers is costing California nearly a fifth of its total output. Keep in mind that the population of California is almost 40 million. The number without power is maybe 1/25th of that.
posted by JackFlash at 12:46 PM on October 30, 2019

Most individuals may not suffer $3000 per day in economic losses, but that seems like a bare minimum for most businesses, so it isn't outlandish, no.
posted by wierdo at 1:06 PM on October 30, 2019

But the calculation is for 600,000 customers. Most of those customers are not businesses. But beyond that, the GDP calculation is business. That calculation does not seem plausible either.

And as another sanity check, last year's government shutdown put 800,000 people out of work for 35 days. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that this cost the economy $11 billion or about $0.3 billion per day, about 1/6 of the blogger's estimate.
posted by JackFlash at 1:13 PM on October 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

How much would the state of California have to invest in PG&E bonds before eventually becoming the primary shareholder post-Chapter 11?
posted by Huffy Puffy at 1:14 PM on October 30, 2019

The economic impact could range from $65 million to $2.5 billion, said Michael Wara, head of the climate and energy-policy program at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, depending how long the blackouts last and how many commercial customers are affected.

Please also remember that "customers" means "accounts," not people. A business with hundreds of employees is "one customer."
posted by lazuli at 2:31 PM on October 30, 2019 [5 favorites]

‘Can’t run a business like this’: Tales from the blackout in Sonoma
At the Glen Ellen Grocery, owned and operated by Sonja Baweja since 2008, the power cut has had immediate and severe economic consequences. “We lost about $10,000 in inventory during the last one,” Bawela said from her store, where she was found over the weekend manning the register in the dark.

Following the Oct. 8 Public Safety Power Shutoff, or PSPS, Bawela’s husband purchased a $900 generator from Costco, which was connected to one of the store’s seven freezers and a single flickering, fluorescent bulb. But all of the ice cream and other dairy had to be thrown out, all the deli meats and cheeses went off, and all the perishables normally stocked at the store were lost.

“Insurance won’t pay,” Bawela said. “Because PG&E gave notice of the PSPS, the losses are not covered by our policy.” ...

Looking ahead, Bernstein is worried about the feasibility of two weddings and a “winemaker dinner” scheduled for the weekend, as well as the hard and soft costs of lost inventory and employee wages if those events cancel. “If we don’t get catering open, we’ll lose between $100,000 and $150,000. Last time it went dark, payroll was $20,000 lower. It’s hard on everybody,” Bernstein said. ...

Sathre’s businesses seem to be at the epicenter of a perfect storm of bad luck, with the restaurant’s operations crippled by inconsistent power, and the wine tourists scared off by wildfire. “This has just smashed us,” Sathre said. “We had $6,000 in wine tour business canceled in the last 48 hours, and with the restaurant, it’s just momentum. It’s impossible to get the ball rolling when you don’t know if you’ll be in business day by day.”
posted by lazuli at 2:35 PM on October 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

California GDP is a little less than $10 billion per day. Is it plausible that turning off power to 600,000 customers is costing California nearly a fifth of its total output. Keep in mind that the population of California is almost 40 million. The number without power is maybe 1/25th of that.

Can you help me remember what the 'G' in GDP stands for?
posted by PMdixon at 5:07 PM on October 30, 2019

Disabled California seniors left behind in power outage.
At least 20 seniors with wheelchairs and walkers were essentially trapped, in the dark, in a low-income apartment complex in Northern California during a two-day power shut-off aimed at warding off wildfires.

Residents of the Villas at Hamilton in Novato, north of San Francisco, say they were without guidance from their property management company or the utility behind the blackout as they faced pitch-black stairwells and hallways and elevators that shut down.
I have a bad feeling there's a lot of stories like this.

The wind has finally calmed down, the Kincade fire is starting to get under control, and it feels like things are returning to normal. Power's been turned back on in a lot of places. But it's still not over really; big parts of Sonoma County are still without power, their.. sixth day running?
posted by Nelson at 10:19 AM on October 31, 2019 [4 favorites]

I have a bad feeling there's a lot of stories like this.

PG&E blackout: Elderly and disabled residents, including original Rosie the Riveter, left in dark for days.
Gould reached out to KTVU on Tuesday afternoon in a near panic. She said she and her neighbors have been living without hot water, lights and the service of an elevator. She said residents who use wheelchairs have been unable to get downstairs or go outside. Many have gone without a cooked meal for days. They say they are angry and scared. ...

Those who live on the first floor are relying on a generator owned by Mark Shawn Keltner, 68, to power a television in the community room. His generators are also powering medical devices and cell phones.
posted by Nelson at 6:16 PM on October 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

PG&E lines caused three fires in Lafayette and Martinez, fire officials say
Power was not shut off in the area because there was low risk of fire, PG&E previously said.
posted by Nelson at 7:43 AM on November 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Power outages hit some of state’s poorest communities hard
Eugene Smallwood, who has insulin-dependent diabetes, said he lost all his groceries when his Clearlake apartment went dark early Oct. 9, spoiling his food and forcing him to spend his limited cash on ice to keep his insulin cold. David Jones’ job hunt was delayed when access to the internet cut out. Jessica Howell drove 45 minutes and spent $100 on gas for an inverter that could charge devices for her family of four — money she had set aside for bills.

“I’d give my left arm to take a hot shower and not have to worry about whether I’m going to have my house on Friday,” said Beth Brackett, a Clearlake resident who was worried she wouldn’t be able to pay November rent. “I borrowed money last week to get food in our house, and now that’s all gone.”
posted by Nelson at 11:12 AM on November 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

PG&E CEO addresses customers who can't restock food spoiled during outage [warning: autoplay video]
I asked Johnson about the strain these blackouts put on many families.

[Reporter Dan] Noyes: "What do you say to people who just can't afford to restock their fridges and are losing all this food they've had in their households after these shut offs?"

[PG&E President and CEO Bill] Johnson: "These events can be hard on people, really hard on people, particularly people who have struggles anyways and there are community-based things you can do, food banks, these kind of things. But for us, you know the main thing is we didn't cause any fires, we didn't, for these people we didn't burn down any houses, the Kincade fire is still under investigation, I got that, but one of the things we did was give them the opportunity to actually refill their refrigerator 'cause their house is still there."

When I posted that exchange on social media, the response was fast and angry. They included:

"'At least we didn't burn your house down' is not a good look in an argument."

"This is what arrogance looks like."

"Your CEO should be fired for this tone-deaf statement."

"He has a base salary of $2.5 million and this answers sounds exactly like it. I can't stand this company."

I asked state Senator Jerry Hill, a long-time critic of PG&E, for his reaction to Johnson's comments.

"To think that we should be grateful that PG&E because of their negligence and their mismanagement didn't burn our house down," he said. "That's the most outrageous, insensitive, tone deaf thing I've ever heard."

Ratepayer advocate Mindy Spatt with the The Utility Reform Network, TURN, was also surprised.

"It is absolutely ridiculous for the CEO of PG&E to stand there and act as if the company is simply an innocent victim of the weather," said Spatt.

Even the San Francisco/Marin Food Bank's Executive Director, Paul Ash, was caught off guard by the suggestion that food banks pick up the slack for PG&E's planned power outage.

"Our major role is to feed low income people," he said. "And when we get pulled away from that to kind of move into disaster mode, that takes away form that effort. So I was sorry to hear him think of food banks as a way to refill refrigerators after a fire, that's not quite the spirit we hope to have."
posted by lazuli at 7:02 PM on November 3, 2019 [5 favorites]

Nevada County, Grass Valley, and Nevada City are submitting an official letter to the CPUC about the impact of the power outages on our small rural community. Some highlights:
The recent PSPS events affected over 43,000 PG&E customers within Nevada County. Our Access and Functional Needs (AFN) populations are in jeopardy through the loss of refrigeration for medication and food, inadequate access to charging stations for life-sustaining devices, inadequate heat to stay warm at home, and life-threatening impacts to local dialysis clinics and other medical facilities. ...

The aggregate average daily impact to these food service business owners are estimated around $398,400 a day with $1,195,200 in loss for a three-day PSPS event. ...

A recent survey of small locally owned retail businesses in the City of Grass Valley found losses were as high as $5,000 to $10,000 [each] for a 2-day event, with many reporting losses as financially significant. ...

Public service financial impacts result in staggering costs to taxpayers with the loss of productivity for the County alone estimated at $313,000 as of the date of this letter. ...

PSPS events have a direct impact on public school funding per day for every closure that occurs with indirect costs for those students with working parents or who are socio-economically disadvantaged that receive free or reduced meals. ...
Those numbers may sound kinda small to big city folks, but it's a lot locally. For context, the entire annual budget for the county is $258M. Nevada County's GDP is roughly $3.5B, or 1/1000 the GDP of the whole state.

I know of at least two businesses that have now closed, the power outages were the last straw. Including the Ol' Republic Roadhouse.
posted by Nelson at 10:37 AM on November 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

Sonoma businesses plea for help
After the 2017 fires, many Sonoma Valley residents know how it feels to not know when to leave, to have no communication, and not know which way to go to get out – it’s a fire metaphor for the unfortunate spot some Sonoma Valley businesses are in.

It was hard enough during and after our 2017 firestorms when the Bay Area and national media and some bloggers portrayed Glen Ellen and Sonoma as gone, destroyed.

Some restaurateurs gave up and closed up shop. Others toughed it out, and were nearly back to normal two years later when PG&E cut off power to many Valley locations, including all of Glen Ellen, once again.

And that was the impression the national media have created again, not distinguishing between Sonoma County and the City of Sonoma.

Absent Sonoma Valley’s onetime largest employers, Nicholas Turkey Farms and the Sonoma Developmental Center, tourism seems to be Sonoma’s primary employer across the valley. Without tourism, such as in times of crisis, where are we?

This time Sonoma Valley didn’t lose any buildings, businesses or lives like our neighbors to the north did around Guyserville and Windsor in the Kincade fire. We only lost refrigerated food, abilities to communicate or pump water.

Some people lost jobs, lost workers, lost income, and lost ability to replenish their refrigerators. Evacuated business owners and workers couldn’t get here or were displaced to counties miles away. Some were even afraid to show up at shelters or accept food from donors.

Meanwhile last Sunday the Los Angeles Times sent out a news alert saying, “California’s wine country has become fire country, leaving devastation and fear.” Not helpful.

And the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday Business section featured an empty Girl & the Fig at the high point of wind and power outages.

Now our restaurants, wineries, and other businesses need our help to recover and to be able to pay their staff. They are suffering and receiving cancellations of reservations at restaurants, wineries and hotels, and huge drops in business.

Karen and Chris Bertrand of Glen Ellen Inn Grill & Bar said it well for all of us on Facebook

“Truly the very best way to help our beloved Sonoma County recover is simple,” wrote the Bertrands in a joint post. “Come, visit, eat, drink, stay. Please don’t cancel upcoming reservations-just come! Bring friends. Enjoy the bounty of Wine Country.”

They described themselves as “the real people” behind the restaurants and other local businesses.

“We want nothing more than to do our jobs and live our normal lives. We are the cooks, servers, dishwashers and farmers (many of us small business people do all of these things at the same time). Those have lost homes still need to provide for their families through work.”

Concluded the Bertrands: “Sonoma County is a truly magical place that frankly needs your patronage to survive. Come visit – we welcome you with open arms.”
posted by lazuli at 10:46 AM on November 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

Having seen how cavalierly people were talking about buying and installing generators, their increased use really worries me.
posted by lazuli at 12:50 PM on November 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

« Older Somewhere, in the distant reaches of space...   |   Cats, endlessly entertaining amirite Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments